Review: The Golden Age by John C Wright

The Golden Age by John C Wright, Tor Books 2002

The Golden Age is set in a far future version of our solar system -known as the Oecumene. Humanity has developed to the point where people exist in multiple forms – mostly interconnected via benign article intelligences so that they move seamlessly from virtual realities to augmented bodies (not necessarily their own). There is great wealth, very little in the form of crime and people are engaged in art or even solar engineering. Dissent, such as it is, comes in the form of exotic Neptunians (transhumans who live in the further reaches of the solar system so as to escape supervision by the benign ‘sophotech’ AIs) and primitivists who have renounced varying degrees of the transhumance experience.

However, humanity (or rather transhumanity) is somewhat trapped within the solar system. An attempt had been made to establish an interstellar colony many light years away but all the evidence is that this colony has failed. Aware that the Sun cannot last forever a prominent citizen of the Oecumene known as Helion (appropriately enough) has re-engineered the Sun to increase its longevity.

Wright explores this society with a neat plot device. The central character (Phaeton) has lost a part of his memory. Initially he is unaware of this but during a culture wide festivity known as the Masquerade he encounters a series of people who allude to great and terrible deeds. The first encounter is a primitivist, then an Neptunian (who acts suspiciously but presents themselves as an ally) and then the Oecumene’s last remaining soldier.

Phaeton is a Randian hero – a man with vision and imagination who seeks to make reality great engineering projects but who finds himself thwarted by a society that does not share his same vision. However, unlike the character’s in Ayn Rand’s books, Wright places Phaeton in a society in which a literal take on personal freedom is central. The Oecumene allows any individual the freedom to do what they like to themselves and their own property so long as they don’t interfere with others unwillingly. As Phaeton puts the clues together about his missing memories we learn that he has repeatedly found himself in conflict over his grand schemes and hence has established a reputation of a brave, heroic figure who is also viewed as being dangerous, foolhardy and disruptive.

The book is a much earlier work by Wright than others we’ve looked at here and yet it carries many of the same hallmarks. Wright is examining the philosophical implications of transhumanism, he makes use of florid, pompous language, he borrows liberally from mythic ideas and structures and the story is dominated by male perspective with a view of men being natural protagonists. However, here these components work much better. Wright uses his predilection for adjective strings to give an unreal quality to the pompous speech of the aristocratic citizens of the Oecumene. The mythic elements work well in the SF setting, giving the story an almost Blake like or gnostic quality as Phaeton seeks a kind of enlightenment and finds himself in conflict with his creator/father.

The mix of a Randian hero in a conflict with a libertarian-like society gives Phaeton’s quest some real tension. It isn’t clear if his forgotten self is actually intended to be heroic or a misguided revolutionary. Sections of Oecumene society that support him are characterized as unsavory (or even demonic) whereas others appear angelic or god like.

Wright’s consistent weak spot is women characters. The most significant is Daphne, Phaeton’s wife and her role seems to wobble between various stereotypes from an annoying drag on Phaeton’s ambitions to an excuse for Phaeton to emote and act wronged and angst ridden. It does feel like Wright is baffled by women and is happier writing exotic Neptunians.

In short, not awful, good in places – better than Wright’s 2015 Hugo Packet contributions but…I didn’t find myself rushing to buy the sequel even though the plot remains unresolved.